Q&A with Hamida Ghafour on Syria's rape victims
Nour, a Syrian refugee, says she was raped and tortured in a Damascus prison for 60 days by pro-government guards and soldiers. She is now in Amman, Jordan. (Hamida Ghafour/Toronto Star)
“They had visitors in the prison playing cards and they said in front of us, ‘if you want sex, there are girls here,’ ” Nour says. Two girls died in the cell, she says.
Sexual violence against Syrian women brings fear, shame and rejection. Few women and girls are willing to admit they were raped in Syria’s civil war. The Star's Hamida Ghafour recently travelled to Amman, Jordan to speak with some of the war's rape victims. Read her piece here.
Q: How extensive is rape in the Syrian war?
A: The simple answer is we don't know. There are not enough organizations with access to Syria who can document the extent of sexual violence. Certainly, the regime is using rape as a way of torturing prisoners, men and women. The rebels are as well, but again, how much no one knows for sure.
The nature of the civil war has changed and this may affect the nature of violence being committed against civilians.
The war has also become more mechanized, with an all out assault against the population using heavy weaponry, so I’m not sure how much opportunity there would be for the regime or even the rebels anymore to commit sexual assaults in the heat of battle. In the early stages of war there was more of this. But now the government is using tanks, cluster bombs and rockets in residential areas.
One of the things I found startling when interviewing Syrian women in Jordan was how many of them had escaped the war because they were worried their daughters may be raped by soldiers or Free Syrian army fighters. It came up again and again, sometimes unprompted, in my conversations about other aspects of their lives as refugees.
It is hard to say how many of them had children who had suffered sexual violence and were not admitting it, but the fact that it was driving them out of the country is significant. Often I would hear that they left their village or town because they heard that women in the next village had been attacked.
Q: Is anyone trying to start programs to help rape victims?
A: There have been calls to fund programs, and rightly so. But several factors complicate this. Even if there were extensive counselling and medical services available I'm not sure how many Syrian women would go to them. For one, most Syrians even before the warl had negative experiences with the state and view it with suspicion or fear. In a police state you didn’t go to your government to help you. That fear has stayed with refugees in Jordan and many do not even trust big relief organizations such as the Red Cross or UNICEF. It is particular to Syria -- I heard several times that the Iraqi refugees after the invasion in 2003 were more willing to reach out to groups trying to help.
The International Rescue Committee has tried to get around this problem by organizing women-only group therapy sessions to encourage women to confide. I spoke to several of them who say it did indeed relieve the stresses and pressures but none has so far come forward to say they were raped.
And culture plays a part too which I wrote about in my story. One of the women, who opened a small shelter hasn’t registered her charity with the Jordanian authorities, which would make it easier to raise money, because of the social stigma around sexual violence. To formally open a rape shelter would open the victims to scorn, at best, or at worse more violence because there is a culture of blaming the victim for the rapes.
Q: What has the reaction been to the story?
A: A lot of positive response from our readers who say they know more about the war than before but sadly a lot of racist comments and superior judgments from readers and on social media along the lines of ‘all this just proves that Muslim men are like animals, keeping women in burkas and raping them’.
But a glimpse at the reaction around sexual violence and women on the Internet shows perhaps our western culture hasn’t progressed that much. Just being a woman and writing about these issues invites aggressive insults. Lauren Wolfe who has written extensively about rape in conflict, particularly Syria, told me after her recent Syria report she received a lot of nasty comments calling her a “lying b**** and Zionist filth.
Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University wrote recently about the “vile” reaction on the web after she appeared on British television ranging from comments about her pubic hair and being described as a c***. It is enough to put women off appearing in public life, but that’s another story.
Q: What has happened to Nour?
A: She is still in Amman, trying to get the right identity papers so she can leave Jordan as a refugee and live in the West somewhere. When she was captured and detained all her identity documents were confiscated so she's finding it hard to prove she is a Syrian citizen.
When I interviewed her she stressed to me several times that she once had a normal life and this has stayed with me. We chatted about her hobby, photography. Her dad owned a car dealership in Damascus. She was a typical, middle class girl.
Her sense of isolation, injustice and anger at what has happened to her are universal themes for us all and touched our readers who have written to me since reading Nour's story about their own personal traumas, very different to Nour, but around being gay and being victimized, or suffering sexual assault. She has touched a lot of people she will never meet simply because she was brave enough to share her life with a total stranger.